Review: Greek myth morphs to stage in Pittsburgh Opera's production of 'Orphee'

| Sunday, April 27, 2014, 9:29 a.m.

Pittsburgh Opera brings its 75th season to a bold conclusion with a smart and stylish staging of “Orphee” by contemporary American composer Philip Glass, a production that opened April 26 at the Benedum Center, Downtown.

Glass took more than inspiration to address the Orpheus myth from the magnificent 1950 film by French author Jean Cocteau. He also used Cocteau's brilliant script virtually verbatim, with only a few very small cuts.

Orpheus has natural appeal for composers because he was a mesmerizing singer. The basic story is that Orpheus goes to the underworld to bring his wife, Eurydice, back to the world of the living. His request is granted on the condition that he not look at her, and loses her forever when their eyes meet.

In fact, the very first great opera is Claudio Monteverdi's “Orfeo,” which was first performed in in Venice in 1607. Christoph Wilibald Gluck's famous “Orfeo ed Euridice” opened in Vienna in 1761. A revised version, in French rather than Italian, opened in Paris in 1774. Both Cocteau's film and Glass' opera include a brief quote from Gluck's music.

Cocteau updated the story from antiquity to his own time. He made Orphee a poet rather than a singer. The script is filled with memorable lines about artistic inspiration and fame as a double-edge sword. He also added new characters: The Princess, who comes for those about to die, and her retinue of servants.

Pittsburgh Opera is presenting Sam Helfrich's 2007 staging of Glass' opera, which was first seen in 1993. Much of Cocteau's innovative cinematography is not practical in a live performance.

The opera opens at a party at which young poet Cegeste attacts all the attention, much to Orphee's consternation. It is typical of Cocteau's script that when Orphee asks an older poet what he needs to do, the answer is, “Amaze us.”

Baritone Matthew Worth gave a wonderfully nuanced portrayal of the narcissistic Orphee. He sang the role with Virginia Opera in 2012, a fact unaccountably missing from his bio in the program book. Caroline Worra, an alumnus of Pittsburgh Opera's resident artist program, brought appealing vulnerability to Eurydice, who is pregnant in this telling of the story. Her bio fails to mention she created the role at the debut of Helfirch's staging.

Heather Buck made the most of the soaring musical lines Glass wrote for The Princess, particularly in the second act. Orphee is so charismatic a figure that she falls in love with him and takes Eurydice to the world of the dead. She's called to task for that unauthorized move by three judges, led by the impressive Phillip Gay. Those judges, and the cryptic if not nonsensical phrases heard on a radio from which Orphee thinks he's finding inspiration in the film, bring to mind the French resistence to the Nazis in World War II.

The Princess' servant, Heurtebise, is excellently portrayed by tenor Jonathan Boyd, who coped well with the role's high tessitura.

Pittsburgh Opera's production is strongly cast down to the smallest roles. Among the major secondary roles, standouts were current resident artists Daniel Curran as Cegeste and Samantha Korbey as Eurydice's friend and feminist leader Aglonice.

Company music director Antony Walker led a performance that was both decisive and sensitive, with shrewdly judged dynamics. The orchestra played superbly.

While Glass came to fame as a minimalist composer, he now characterizes his style as using “repetitive structures.” The difference is not merely semantic. Musical ideas, including harmony, change frequently, eliminating any chance of boredom.

Pittsburgh Opera's production of “Orphee” by Philip Glass will be repeated at 7 p.m. April 29, 8 p.m. May 2 and 3 p.m. May 4 at the Benedum Center, Downtown. Admission is $12 to $155. Details: 412-456-6666 or

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or

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